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How flexible working can stem the teaching brain drain

Teacher recruitment is challenging, and almost half of teachers in England plan to quit by 2027. Our Teaching Pioneers pilot shows what schools and MATs can do to attract and keep them.

By Muriel Tersago, Principal Consultant


Debates around the crisis in teacher recruitment and retention aren’t new – but the pandemic appears to have made things even worse. April 2022 research from the National Education Union suggests that 44% of teachers are planning to leave within five years, and that it’s getting harder to fill vacancies, with a knock-on effect on workloads for remaining staff.

Teachers’ reasons for leaving are many and varied, and include issues around workload, wellbeing and stress; all of which could be mitigated if flexible working in schools was more widely available. Indeed, NFER research has shown that some teachers leave because they can’t access flexible working, and that many secondary school teachers who do leave reduce their hours when they do.

It’s for this reason that we have spent the last 16 months working on a Teaching Pioneers Programme with three MATs, across eight schools, piloting how best to champion and deliver flexible working within schools. And our findings are clear: yes, it’s complex, but it’s not impossible, and there is a return on investment for doing so. As one deputy headteacher put it: “Find the commitment and shift in mindset, and you can tackle the operational issues.”

The challenges for schools – and how we set out to tackle them

Clearly, introducing flexible working into teaching is less straightforward than in office-based roles. Complications around timetabling and culture, the frontline nature of the role and the intensity of the school day all play their part.

But our Teaching Pioneer MATs (Academies Enterprise Trust, GLF Schools and The Kemnal Academies Trust) recognised that these challenges should, and could, be overcome. They agreed about the benefits of flexible working in schools, and saw our pilot as an opportunity to focus on how to go wider and deeper with the changes that were needed.

Our team worked closely with central HR teams and headteachers from the eight schools to explore five core areas, providing support including workshops, coaching sessions, timetabling masterclasses and train-the-trainer materials, and sharing learnings across the group at each stage.

What we learned – and what it means for schools

So what was the outcome? There were a number of key learnings, which our Teaching Pioneers have already begun to implement – and which can be adopted by other schools and academy trusts who are keen to get better at flexible working. Here are some of the highlights:

  • Flexible working must be tackled at a whole-school level

Many schools currently operate on a request-response model, in which people (usually women coming back from maternity leave) formally ask for reduced hours. This pigeonholes flex as something that needs to be earned, and isn’t applicable to all, creating an unspoken sense that there are a limited number of arrangements possible.

A far better way forward is to implement a proactive whole-school approach, which opens up opportunities for flexibility across all roles. This is facilitated by regular, open discussions about what people’s flexible needs might be, how to create opportunities to support these, and how to build these into the timetabling and workforce planning processes.

  • Schools need to reframe what flexible working means

A knock-on effect of the request response model is that flexible working in schools has become synonymous with part-time. However, there are many other flexible options that schools can consider, such as timetabling PPA at the beginning or end of the day and allowing staff to do that work from home, or delivering CPD and meetings remotely.

Many schools trialled some of these approaches during lockdown, and some have continued with them; but what’s often missing is a strategic approach to their implementation, underpinned by dialogue about when, where and how work can be done, which gives people a sense of input and control.

The point is to have open minds and discussions, and see what is possible within each role and team. In the words of one principal: “We can’t guarantee the same outcomes… but the process is the same for all – open conversations, trying out different ideas and trying to make it work.”

  • The attitude of the headteacher is mission critical

Clearly, such substantial operational and culture changes require committed leadership. So it’s vital that headteachers are not just vaguely supportive of flexible working, but committed to it in principle, and driven to make it work. This commitment is all the more powerful when heads role model working flexibly themselves.

They also need to be willing to pass on some of the responsibility to others. With a whole-school approach, the implications and execution of what’s needed and what’s possible are discussed at an individual, team and school level, rather than simply being approved or declined by the head.

The pilot also highlighted the importance of clear communication, explored solutions for the thorny issue of timetabling, focused on training and empowerment of line managers and noted the positive impact on students.

The view from our Teaching Pioneers – and next steps

Sixteen months on from the start of the project, what’s been the impact on our Teaching Pioneers? Our post-pilot evaluation showed that a majority of teachers surveyed felt more confident about discussing flexible working, and that different reasons were considered more acceptable; they also noted that their schools were increasingly supportive of flexible working.

Qualitative feedback also highlights the impact the programme has had. Comments include: “There is so much goodwill in return for the trust and understanding we are given”, and “Thinking proactively is liberating… we engage more people to explore what’s possible and come up with more creative ideas that can work for both sides.”

One principal noted “Our absenteeism has dropped through the floor”, which highlights the return on investment that flexible working can deliver. Our own research has showed that, for a MAT with 100 teaching staff, one fewer sick day per teacher per year for three years would cover the cost of a flexible working pilot. On every level, that’s an investment worth making.

It’s our hope that more schools and MATs will use the findings from this pilot to develop their own whole school approach to flexible working, and reap these rewards. We’ve also partnered with the Department for Education to develop a programme of insights and resources to train school leaders in flexible working; to date 682 schools and 103 business institutions across the country have taken part. We’ll be watching with interest to see how the educational landscape changes as a result.

You can download the Teaching Pioneers Programme report here.

Published June 2022

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